Explainer | How China’s Communist Party, founded by young people, continues to engage youths
- Communist Youth League has a prominent place in party history as a springboard for state leaders
- Recruiting young party members has been cited by top leaders as being vital to the country’s prosperity
This is the sixth in the South China Morning Post’s series of explainers about China’s Communist Party in the lead-up to the party’s centenary in July. In this piece, Zhuang Pinghui explains the importance of young people to the party amid China’s ageing population.
Soon after he became China’s president in 2013, Xi Jinping addressed youth representatives from the Communist Party.
“If the youth are prosperous, the country is prosperous. If the youth are strong, the country is strong,” he said, adding that the country’s development had always depended on young people.
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In comparison, 13 per cent of Britain’s Conservative Party and 18 per cent of its Labour Party were below 40, according to a study by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project, Queen Mary University of London and University of Sussex in 2017.
Some of this can be traced to the economic modernisation of China in the 1980s, but the history of the Communist Party’s emphasis on youth goes further back – to before it was even founded.
What role did youth play in the party’s early years?
In the 1920s, socialist youth leagues were established in key cities for students and young workers to study Marxism and organise revolutionary activities. These were later combined to form what is now known as the Communist Youth League of China.
Most of the 13 representatives who attended the Communist Party’s first National Congress in 1921, the year of the party’s foundation, were in their twenties and thirties.
This included Mao Zedong, who was 28 years old at the time and would eventually go on to become the founder of the People’s Republic of China and rule the country for over three decades.
Is cultivating youth still important to the Communist Party?
In its early years, the party focused primarily on recruiting members from the three “revolutionary” classes: workers, farmers and soldiers.
After the revolution ended, party veterans such as Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun returned to power and expressed the wish to nurture younger, more educated potential successors to replace older, uneducated leftists with young technocrats, in order to press ahead with reforms to modernise the country.
Talk of cultivating a younger, more highly educated generation of future leaders has continued under Xi’s rule.
“To achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, the key to the party, the key to people, ultimately lies in the training of a generation of reliable successors,” the president said at a national personnel meeting in 2018.
What attracts young people to the party?
University students in the 1980s said they joined the party for ideological reasons in support of communism and to help with reform efforts, according to a 2019 paper by Yang Shouhong, deputy chief of the Chongqing University party committee’s organisation department.
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In 2012, belief in communism was a motivating factor according to 54 per cent of 3,000 college students surveyed in Shanghai, compared with previous surveys in which this was cited by 57 per cent in 2005 and 84 per cent in 1991, Yang’s paper said.
In a 2019 survey of university students in Jiangxi province, 49 per cent said a motivating factor was that it was helpful to their career, while 34 per cent cited personal gain.
The party’s central organisation department, which manages human resources, has described joining for personal gain as “impure”. These motivations may include better employment prospects in the civil service and state-owned companies, and having an achievement to list on a résumé, according to the Jiangxi survey.
Some government jobs explicitly require party membership. Support staff for the party, for example, have to be members.
What does the Communist Youth League do?
Today, the group’s mission is to help young people “learn about socialism with Chinese characteristics and about communism through practice”.
In 2017, more than 81 million people – 6 per cent of China’s total population – were youth league members.
The league has been a springboard for top state leaders and ministry-level officials in the past decade. Xi was not a youth league member, but his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua had all risen through the youth league’s ranks.
The shared experience of many high-flying officials as youth league alumni has led to political analysts referring to them as the “league clique”.
How has the Communist Party’s engagement of youth changed?
Historically influential, the youth league has come under criticism in recent years during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and efforts to “clean up” the party.
Other one-time youth league officials who have fallen from grace after corruption charges include former Guangzhou party boss Wan Qingliang, former Inner Mongolia vice-chairman Pan Yiyang, former Nanning party secretary Yu Yuanhui, and Zhang Lebin, former deputy director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
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Full-time officials from the youth league were required to engage with at least 100 league members from different fields, while part-time ones were asked to contact at least 10 young people outside the league to expand recruitment efforts.
The party extends its reach through the All-China Youth Federation, an association it founded in 1949 that has more than 50 youth groups as members, including the youth league.
Xi said in a letter last year that the federation was an important part of the party’s youth work. Its purpose, he wrote, included “organising and mobilising a large number of young people and students to follow the party”.